In 'Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House,' Deep Throat Isn't So Deep

Sep 28, 2017

"The goddamn punks are running the country!"

That outraged remark, delivered by the upright protagonist of Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, might suggest to some viewers that the movie was made with one eye on the current White House. But that is an interpretation supported by only a few moments in the film, which wrapped production before the 2016 Republican National Convention.

In fact, writer-director Peter Landesman draws barely any contemporary parallels and offers little help to less history-minded viewers. Mark Felt is designed for people who already know something about the Watergate affair — or at least have seen the most prominent previous treatment of the subject.

Mark Felt flips the setup of 1976's All the President's Men by pulling Felt out of the shadows inhabited, in the earlier movie, by Hal Holbrook playing a leaker then known to the world only as Deep Throat. Liam Neeson's Felt is the center of this story — even when Landesman occasionally attempts to disclose something about the people around him.

The film opens in police-procedural mode, as Felt gets dressed while an electronic score pulses and news crackles on the radio. He is off to the White House, where presidential counsel John Dean (Michael D. Hall) and a few other Nixon then-loyalists sound him out on how to remove FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Felt declines to assist them, responding with Oskar-Schindler-like nobility but also gentlemanly menace. Hoover soon dies, allowing Nixon to appoint his own acting FBI director just as word of a puzzling burglary at the Watergate complex reaches the bureau.

L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas) gets the job Felt wanted and, his colleagues believe, deserved. Felt's disappointment, the script suggests, has as much to do with his becoming Deep Throat as his disgust at the White House bullies who order the FBI's Watergate investigation closed.

There is also another factor: Gray announces his intention to name as his new No. 2 a former FBI agent (Tom Sizemore) who personifies the excesses of the Hoover years. Felt abhors the guy and what he represents.

And another: As he defends his beloved bureau from Nixonian mischief, Felt is himself bending rules in his investigations of the Weather Underground and similar organizations. Felt fears that his runaway daughter (Maika Monroe) might be involved with violent leftists and hopes that locating her might ease the pain of his alcoholic wife (Diane Lane).

Felt starts talking to journalists he already knows. He meets Bob Woodward (Julian Morris) in that parking garage, but the movie spends more time at Felt's parleys with Time magazine's Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood). Although the diner where they meet is less murky than the garage, Adam Kimmel's camera is nearly always parked in some sort of gloom.

As complications pile up, Mark Felt loses the drive that distinguishes its first half. That is due in part to the fact that the ultimate result of Felt and Nixon's duel-by-proxy is so well-known and anticlimactic. No satisfying crime movie ends with the perp's retirement to New Jersey to write public-policy books. Also, the final half-hour is rushed and patchy, with frustrating jumps in continuity that require viewers to fill in some pretty big blanks.

If the movie disappoints as a cops-and-burglars flick, its biggest failure is as a character study. Despite all the revelations about Felt's career and family, he is no more complex a character at the end than at the beginning. Neeson's performance is all steel-spined bearing and resonant intonation.

It's up to the actor to carry the movie, which he does. He just doesn't lug it anyplace particularly illuminating.

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